Young and Old! As a teacher, dealing with younger pupils and sometimes older colleagues can, at times, be a challenge. Perhaps ancient Biblical wisdom literature holds a key to approaching this in a new way.
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No matter what your age is - if you work as a teacher, you're "old" from the perspective of the pupils in your classroom! In many ways, our culture idolises youth, or being young. There seems to be considerable distance between western cultures and more traditionalist cultures, which includes an array of diverse cultures in which the Bible was written, when it comes to our approach to age. In many ways, we have reversed what we value - rather than valuing the wisdom of old age, we chase after the unfulfillable dream of eternal youth.
In this context, the approach young Elihu takes to challenging his much older friends in Job 32:6-10 is fascinating:
6 So Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite said:
“I am young in years,
and you are old;
that is why I was fearful,
not daring to tell you what I know.
7 I thought, ‘Age should speak;
advanced years should teach wisdom.’
8 But it is the spirit in a person,
the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding.
9 It is not only the old who are wise,
not only the aged who understand what is right.
10 “Therefore I say: Listen to me;
I too will tell you what I know.
Probably some of you wish that this was the approach the children in your classroom took! How many of your pupils will first listen to your "wisdom" in patience, even if they disagree? Elihu is "fearful" of speaking to his elders - in our society, many people seem to be "fearful" of speaking to teenagers!
The cultural expectations of this passage are obvious, young Elihu is expected to learn from his wise elders. However, the Bible turns this cultural expectation upside down: as it turns out, what Elihu says is considered to be wisdom, while the things that his elders have just spent countless chapters saying are swept aside as actually making God angry later in the book.
And why is that? Where does this wisdom come from, how does Elihu do it? Verses 18-19 give us a clue:
18 For I am full of words,
and the spirit within me compels me;
19 inside I am like bottled-up wine,
like new wineskins ready to burst.
He is inspired by the spirit within him. That's where his wisdom comes from. Jesus uses that exact image of new wine in the New Testament, basically to say that the new life on offer through him is like a new wineskin, that is able to receive the new wine of God's Spirit. (The strength of the fermentation process of new wine would have burst an old wineskin).
So, through Jesus, we are in a similar situation to Elihu - a new wineskin that is receiving wine. We are "full of words, and the spirit within compels" us to speak, and act, with wisdom. Whenever we are in a position of authority, we would do well to learn from Elihu's humble approach to his elders.
After all, here's a thought: if the age roles in our culture are reversed, should we perhaps be inspired by this passage to learn a thing or two about how to engage younger people from the approach Elihu takes to speaking to older people? An engagement that is humble but fed by the overflow of God's spirit within us! Could that be a thought to pray about and take with you into the classroom?
Robin Staple is The Stapleford Centre's coordinator. He is passionate about God, theology and coffee - and especially about how the Christian vision for holistic and wholesome education can offer a real contribution to the common good of society.
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